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With vocal leaders and a confident coach, Towson football plans to exceed expectations

Members of the Towson University football team, including head coach Rob Ambrose, right, sing "Happy Birthday" to Maya Libit, left, of Rodgers Forge, who turned 10 on July 4, during Towson's Fourth of July parade.
Members of the Towson University football team, including head coach Rob Ambrose, right, sing "Happy Birthday" to Maya Libit, left, of Rodgers Forge, who turned 10 on July 4, during Towson's Fourth of July parade. (Steve Ruark / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Tenth place. That’s where Towson football is predicted to finish in its 12-team conference in a coaches’ poll released Tuesday at the Colonial Athletic Association Football Media Day at M&T Bank Stadium.

For the Tigers, the snub was an emotional stimulus.

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“That’s how we like it. Hopefully, we’ll take the league by storm,” said Matt Kauffman, a 6-foot-5, 320-pound offensive guard.

“It’s good to be the underdog,” safety Monty Fenner said. “There’s no way things will end up the way they start out.”

Coach Rob Ambrose took a blunter approach.

“Picking us 10th is kind of dumb. But go ahead, we don’t care,” Ambrose said, as if addressing his rivals. “We’re 10th, we’re no good. Remember that, when you show up [to play Towson].”

It’s crunch time for the Tigers, 5-6 last fall while missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year. Injuries ransacked the attack, which averaged 13 points through the first eight games.

But winning three of its last four gave Towson a touchstone for 2018. At season’s end, Ambrose promised, “Come hell or high water, we’re going [to the playoffs] next year.”

Tuesday, a reporter asked the coach to complete the sentence, “This will be a winning year if … “

Ambrose’s response?

“Get rid of the ‘if’ and put a period there.”

There’s a flood of returnees to back up his boast. Veterans fill all of Towson’s skill positions, including running backs Shane Simpson and Kobe Young. Most of the offensive line is back, led by Kauffman, a redshirt senior and three-year starter who hopes the Tigers stay pain-free.

“We have a ‘next-man-up’ mentality but, last year, it seemed like every week there was someone who’d never played lined up next to you,” Kauffman said.

All eyes are on the quarterback post, where incumbent Ryan Stover will battle four others, including Jeff Miller, a ballyhooed 6-foot-6 freshman from California, and Tom Flacco, a transfer from Western Michigan (via Rutgers) and the brother of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.

“Personality-wise, the two [Flaccos] are entirely different,” Ambrose said. “Joe is straight-laced and poker-faced, never too high or too low. Tom is a more excitable guy — and he can run.”

Recently, when he saw Joe Flacco, Ambrose prodded him for details about his younger sibling.

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“Give me some ammunition,” the coach asked.

“No, no,” Flacco answered. “But you’ve met him, right?”

Ambrose nodded.

“Well, he’ll give you some ammunition, soon enough.”

Already, the coach said, he is impressed with his team’s persona.

“Last year at this time, we had no leaders. We had some serious, selfish, bad-decision maturity issues,” he said. “Now, instead of begging guys to lead, I’ve got guys coming from everywhere.”

On board is Fenner, a redshirt senior and four-year starter who has stepped up to mentor young teammates.

“I wasn’t a vocal person; I always let my actions lead,” he said. “Now, I’m coming out of my box. I’m talking more because it’s not about me, it’s about the team.

“Off the field, I take that initiative, too, like being a big brother. I’ll tell guys not to go out on Friday night before a game. Before, if a [teammate] was thinking about using drugs, I’d say, ‘You’re your own man, do what you want.’ Now, I take the approach, like, ‘You’re risking your scholarship and college costs a lot of money, so be smart about this.’ ”

Said Kauffman: “Everyone holds each other accountable now. We players hold our own workouts in summer, going seven-on-seven. Practice is voluntary but if a player isn’t there, we’ll call him and even go to his house to give him a ride.”

Several weeks ago, Kauffman said, Towson’s seniors took a half-dozen freshmen players to an Orioles game “to bond, to get to know each other better.”

No matter that the Orioles lost, he said. The Tigers went home winners.

CAA preseason poll

1. James Madison (21 first-place votes), 241 points

2. New Hampshire (2), 206

3. Delaware, 182

4. Stony Brook, 169

5. Elon (1), 168

6. Villanova, 164

7. Richmond, 127

8. Maine, 81

9. Albany, 78

10. Towson, 74

11. William & Mary, 55

12. Rhode Island, 39

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